Effects of beta-adrenoceptor blockade on components of human decision-making
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Converging evidence from studies with neurological patients and brain imaging studies with healthy volunteers suggests that the capacity to make choices between actions associated with probabilistic rewards and punishments depends upon a network of cortico-limbic systems including the orbitofrontal cortex, cingulate cortex, amygdala and striatum. The involvement of such structures highlights the emotional aspects of decision-making and suggests that decision-making may be sensitive to manipulations of the catecholamine systems that innervate these structures. In this study, we investigated the possible role of noradrenaline (NA).
We examined the effects of a single oral 80 mg dose of the beta-adrenoceptor blocker, propranolol, on the decision-making of healthy volunteers in a double-blind, placebo-controlled, between-subjects design.
Seventeen volunteers ingested a placebo while 15 volunteers ingested propranolol. Visual analogue scales, and self-reported positive and negative ratings, were used to assess subjective changes and mood. Vital signs were also monitored. Seventy-five minutes after treatment, volunteers were asked to make a series of choices between two simultaneously presented gambles, differing in the magnitude of possible gains (i.e. reward), the magnitude of possible losses (i.e. punishment), and the probabilities with which these outcomes were delivered. Volunteers also chose between gambles probing identified non-cognitive biases in human decision-making, namely, risk-aversion when choosing between gains and risk-seeking when choosing between losses.
Propranolol treatment did not result in gross changes in subjective state or mood in comparison to placebo, but did slow heart rate significantly. Propranolol produced a selective change in volunteers’ decision-making; namely, it significantly reduced the discrimination between large and small possible losses when the probability of winning was relatively low and the probability of losing was high.
These results suggest that NA modulates the processing of punishment signals when choosing between probabilistic rewards and punishments under conditions of increased arousal.
KeywordsChoice Decision-making Noradrenaline Reward Punishment Arousal
Margaret Lancaster was supported by Wellcome Trust Vacation Scholarship (2001). Zubin Bhagwagar is funded by a MRC Clinical Training Fellowship.
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